Every four years, presidential candidates make pilgrimages to Iowa and preach the gospel of ethanol, the corn-based fuel that pours nearly $5 billion into the state’s economy every year.
This time, it looked like things might really be different.
Story Continued Below
In 2016, Ted Cruz won Iowa’s Republican caucus as a heretic, arguing that the Renewable Fuels Standard—the federal policy that requires billions of gallons of ethanol to be mixed into American gasoline—was a boondoggle. Among Democrats, meanwhile, the incentive to kowtow to the rural Iowans who love ethanol has faded; the party has lost most of its support in farm country, and its new early-state primary schedule could reduce Iowa’s importance in 2020. And heading into the 2020 primaries, as the candidates rush to declare climate change an emergency and embrace an aggressive Green New Deal to fight it, ethanol has lost its luster as a green fuel, as scientific evidence mounts that it’s intensifying the climate problem rather than helping to solve it.
“This should be an early test of whether candidates are really committed to attacking the climate crisis,” says Scott Faber, an Environmental Working Group lobbyist who focuses on agricultural issues. “You can’t be for the status quo with ethanol and also be for saving the planet.”
So far, though, it looks like the status quo is going to prevail: Every leading 2020 Democrat who has taken a position on ethanol is for it.
Democrats still seem to think they can revive their brand in farm country by pledging allegiance to the government’s longstanding efforts to prop up ethanol. Iowa is America’s top ethanol producer, with 44 plants that help support more than 40,000 jobs, and so far none of the Democrats competing there have broken the faith.
Some of the Democrats were never going to buck King Corn. Farm-state candidates like Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio have touted their longstanding support for the Renewable Fuel Standard. Vice President Joe Biden also supported a robust RFS before and during his time in Barack Obama’s administration, and he’s given no indication that would change if he runs. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an anti-establishment iconoclast who once criticized ethanol mandates for their “negative impact on farmers and consumers,” already flip-flopped when he ran for president in 2016; he now calls ethanol “an economic lifeline to rural and farm communities in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.”
Urban Democrats like New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, a climate activist who once dismissed ethanol as morally and environmentally indefensible “unless what you’re trying to do is help the people in Iowa,” now say it makes sense as a transitional fuel until electric vehicles are more widely available. A spokeswoman for New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who in the past has criticized biofuels derived from food crops as economically and environmentally problematic, says she now “supports the Renewable Fuels Standard and the full range of biofuels it is designed to promote.” Some environmentalists see California senator Kamala Harris as the most likely to stand apart from the field by taking on the RFS, but she hasn’t taken a public position, and her office did not respond to requests for comment.
It might seem counterintuitive that Democratic candidates would focus more on rural voters who are trending Republican than environmental voters who are key to their base. But support for ethanol is a top priority for agricultural communities, while opposition to ethanol is far down the list of priorities for environmental groups. And Iowa political operatives believe that because Democrats have done so badly in the economically depressed rural areas that helped Trump flip their state red in 2016, they feel even greater political pressure to embrace ethanol in 2020.
“Democrats are doing really well in Iowa’s urban areas, but we’re getting hammered in the countryside,” says Patty Judge, a Democrat who served as Iowa’s agriculture secretary and lieutenant governor. “Prudent candidates are going to talk about our home-grown ethanol industry and all the good jobs it creates.”
In Washington, the perennial war over the RFS has pitted the corn lobby against the petroleum lobby, and ethanol boosters argue that now is a perfect time for Democrats to stand with beleaguered family farmers against Big Oil. Trump, who pledged to support the industry as a candidate in Iowa, has been an inconsistent ally in office. He’s defended the farm-friendly ethanol mandates in the RFS, and has even proposed to expand them in the summer months. But his first EPA administrator, the petroleum advocate Scott Pruitt, handed out numerous waivers to help small refiners dodge the mandates to mix ethanol into the fuel they sell, reducing domestic demand for ethanol—and Trump’s trade war with China has shriveled U.S. ethanol exports.
Even in Iowa, ethanol is not nearly as important an energy source as wind, which now provides more than a third of the state’s electricity. But politically, supporting it has become a way to pledge allegiance to the struggling rural towns that have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent years. Democrats flipped two Iowa congressional seats blue in 2018, thanks to impressive gains in cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, but rural voters helped Republicans retain the governor’s office and racially incendiary GOP Rep. Steve King retain his seat despite the national Democratic wave.
Trump won Iowa by nine points after Barack Obama won it by six points, and Obama’s agriculture secretary, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, says Democrats desperately need to persuade rural voters they’re as serious about revitalizing agricultural communities as they’ve been about helping inner cities if they want to flip back his state—and Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan with it.
“A lot of the caucuses will be held in the kind of small towns that benefit from ethanol jobs,” Vilsack said. “You don’t have to embrace ethanol for the sake of embracing ethanol, but you’ve got to have a plan for rural America.”
Two of every five stalks of corn grown in Iowa are sold to ethanol producers, so any move to limit federal support for ethanol could have a damaging effect on local farmers as well as towns that depend on farm incomes. And traditionally, there’s been little political downside to supporting a local industry, which is why limited-government Republicans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich walked back their previous opposition to ethanol perks when they ran in Iowa. Cruz, a Texan with deep ties to the oil industry, did win despite his opposition to ethanol, but Iowa Republicans usually back conservative ideologues like Cruz, and locals believe he could have gotten much more than 28 percent if he had softened a bit on biofuels. They also believe that by proclaiming his loyalty to ethanol in the caucus, Trump helped pave the way for his comfortable Iowa victory in the general.
In recent Iowa cycles, Democrats have been even more eager to please. As a farm-state senator touting his pro-biofuel voting record, Obama portrayed Hillary Clinton’s embrace of ethanol in 2008 as an election-year conversion of convenience. Clinton then made similar comments after Sanders discovered the upside of ethanol in 2016. This year’s crop of Democratic candidates seem to be putting particular emphasis on winning back farm country—and in a recent survey commissioned by Focus on Rural America, 70 percent of Iowa Democrats said it was very important that a candidate support “cleaner-burning renewable fuels like ethanol.”
But if supporting ethanol is still politically correct in Iowa, it’s not necessarily politically indispensable. That poll found that even more Iowa Democrats felt strongly that their candidate should try to heal the racial and partisan divide (91 percent), stand up for the middle class (88 percent) and lead the fight against climate change (89 percent).
It’s on that last front that ethanol seems the most vulnerable. Over the last decade, a growing body of climate science has complicated the politics by suggesting that ethanol is not really a “cleaner-burning fuel.” It was once considered an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, because even though manufacturing it and driving with it spews carbon into the atmosphere, growing corn plants sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. But newer studies that take a wider view of its impact have found that the land-use changes triggered by using productive farmland to grow fuel can end up increasing overall emissions: Taking an acre out of food production creates demand for additional land to replace that food, and the acreage that gets converted tends to be forests and other natural lands that store more carbon than corn fields.
For example, University of Wisconsin researchers used satellite imagery to document that after the Renewable Fuels Standard was enacted in 2005 and then expanded in 2007, U.S. cropland expanded by nearly 7 million acres over the next five years, releasing the carbon equivalent of 20 million additional cars on the road by chewing up grasslands. Seth Spawn, a geographer who worked on the study, says there’s evidence that biofuels can be helpful to the climate if the raw materials are grown on marginal land or derived from waste products, but not when they’re harvested from the fertile croplands of the Midwest. “The research generally shows that if biofuels are done wrong, it’s worse than not doing them at all,” Spawn says.
Tim Searchinger, a Princeton research scholar whose biofuels analyses have been published in journals like Science and Nature, says the basic problem is that land is very good at growing corn and storing carbon, but very inefficient at producing energy; solar cells can produce 100 times as much energy from the same acreage as corn ethanol. This is why Al Gore, who supported ethanol as a politician, now calls it “a mistake,” and why Gillibrand once pushed for biofuels brewed from non-crop feedstocks like shrub willow “as alternatives to gas and corn-based ethanol.”
The RFS is supposed to promote these so-called “advanced biofuels” as well as corn ethanol, but they haven’t taken off, and green groups that used to advocate for alternative fuels have shifted their focus to electric vehicles that are getting cheaper every year. Lukas Ross, a policy analyst for Friends of the Earth’s political arm, says Democrats who call for emergency action to protect the climate will look like hypocrites if they also protect old-school biofuel boondoggles.
“How can a Democratic candidate go to Iowa on Monday as an ethanol booster and then talk seriously on Tuesday about a Green New Deal?” Ross asks.
It’s a delicate line to walk, and the activists behind the Green New Deal are walking it carefully, too, clamoring for government largesse for farmers who take actions to reduce carbon emissions but remaining largely silent on the question of ethanol. The initial resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) merely outlined an ambitious set of goals for emission reductions, without detailing how those goals would be met. A “greenprint” for eventual legislation floated by the liberal group Data for Progress had more specifics, and while it did not include support for ethanol, only “the next generation of biofuels,” it did not call for rolling back support for ethanol, either.
And it did float the idea of lucrative incentives for farmers to manage their soil, fertilizer and manure in ways that reduce emissions, and to install wind turbines and solar panels on their land. Greg Carlock, the group’s policy director, conceded that the ethanol issue is politically awkward, and that trying to force Democrats to bash a popular industry could be a counterproductive distraction from bigger battles over fossil fuels, carbon regulations, and the Green New Deal itself.
“The tendency will be to try to avoid that conversation unless you absolutely have to have it,” Carlock says. “If ethanol is as bad as the science is telling us, we’ve got to get off it or start doing it sustainably. And that’s hard for Iowans to hear.”
The science is still disputed, and some studies suggest modern agricultural techniques that waste less energy, conserve more soil and produce more corn on less land can improve ethanol’s carbon math; boosters point out that the liberal state of California’s low-carbon fuel standard credits ethanol with reducing emissions somewhat compared to gasoline, even when accounting for land-use changes. Monte Shaw, director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, acknowledges that “somewhat cleaner than gasoline” won’t produce the deep decarbonization envisioned by the Green New Deal, but he says the dream of an all-electric fleet is still a long way off.
“We’ve improved phenomenally over the last two decades, and the internal combustion engine isn’t going away for the next two decades,” Shaw says. “We don’t expect Democrats to say ‘Wow, biofuels are the answer to everything.’ But when they take time to talk to Iowans and tour the plants, we think they’ll say ‘Hey, ethanol isn’t as terrible as all those wacky environmental groups say.’ ”
In an interview with WHO-TV in Des Moines, Booker tried to occupy a middle ground that could become common ground for Democrats, endorsing federal efforts to boost biofuels but warning that U.S. transportation will eventually go electric. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he said. “So right now, I support ethanol, I support our farmers. But know, this transition is coming.” He then pivoted to talk about other ways to help family farmers deal with low prices and Trump’s tariffs.
“Biofuels are a big issue in Iowa, and so is climate,” says state Democratic Party chairman Troy Price. “They’re both going to be part of the conversation.”
Farms and pastures produce about a quarter of the world’s carbon problem. But as Vilsack points out, rural areas can also be a big part of the carbon solution, because “if you want to sequester carbon, you need soil, a plant, or a tree.” Seth Watkins, who grows corn and raises cattle on his 3000-acre family farm in Clarinda, Iowa, is part of a burgeoning movement of farmers who are trying to lighten their impact on the land and on the climate, planting cover crops to reduce soil erosion, minimizing his use of fertilizers and fossil fuels, restoring natural buffers around rivers and streams, trying to work with nature rather than against it.
“Our job is to care for the land, to make sure the resources are here for future generations,” Watkins says. “That means getting serious about climate change.”
Watkins has mixed feelings about corn ethanol. There’s no doubt that the government mandates have helped create demand and boost grain prices, keeping some independent family farms in business and encouraging some young people to stay in agriculture. He even feeds his cattle with ethanol byproducts. But he’s seen more and more marginal land converted into resource-intensive farmland without seeing any real stabilization of farm incomes, and he doesn’t think it’s sustainable. He’s surprised that so far, even as the Democratic candidates have rallied around the Green New Deal with apocalyptic rhetoric, none of them has been willing to take on the ethanol lobby in the name of protecting the earth.
“Our landscape has been decimated by good intentions,” says Watkins, who ran for state Senate in 2014 as a Republican, but now considers himself a Democrat. “I know nobody around here wants to hear that ethanol is a problem, but the only politician who had the guts to say no was Ted Cruz. How sad is that?”